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Putin’s Gamble and the First Shots of a Revolution

Paul Niland argues that the Russian President has doubled down on his gamble by invading Ukraine, with dire consequences for his undemocratic rule in Russia

Tributes to the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on the seventh anniversary of his assassination. The banner reads ‘No War’. Photo: Nikolay Vinokurov/Alamy

Putin’s Gamble and the First Shots of a Revolution

Paul Niland argues that the Russian President has doubled-down on his gamble by invading Ukraine, with dire consequences for his undemocratic rule in Russia

A fierce battle is raging over control of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is gambling that he can take control and, in doing so, replace the legitimate leadership that was installed by the will of the Ukrainian people. This is a gamble, rather than a risk.

When any strategist calculates risk they try to determine where the balance lies between the risk and the reward. The Russian President’s gamble is another example of an addict doubling-down, at every throw of the dice.

In Ukraine, so far, his gambles have backfired. It seems that, on this occasion, through an all-out assault on Ukraine, we may have found Vladimir Putin’s Achilles heel. And it is the Russian people who may finally become the catalyst for what Putin has always most feared: his removal from power by a popular uprising.

Putin, and the gang around him, began their series of attacks on Ukraine with the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. That event began, through the use of military force, just five days after a popular uprising in Ukraine ousted Putin’s corrupt henchman in Kyiv, President Victor Yanukovych.

Putin gambled that he would get away with this with little cost and that, eventually, the world would come to believe the Kremlin’s spin on the annexation being the result of a democratic referendum. This has never happened. Russia’s claims to Crimea have never been accepted by more than a handful of other corrupt quasi dictatorships.

The collective refusal to acquiesce to Putin’s absorption of Crimea into the Russian Federation is one factor that led to the war in Donbas – but not just Donbas. Putin’s 2014 gamble, which he lost, was designed to create something ‘Novorussia’ on vast swathes of Ukraine’s eastern and southern lands.

Instead, he found Ukrainian resistance to the war he started more intense than he expected and he ended up with parts of two oblasts (regions) only – a bit of Luhansk and a bit of Donetsk.

Despite Putin being offered many exit routes to end his occupation of parts of the Donbas – through the Minsk agreements – the thinking in the Kremlin was that it could trade peace there for finally having everyone turn a page on the Crimea question.

While Putin literally offered to trade an end to the bloodshed he started, he gambled that the rest of the world would let him get away with the illegal act of taking Crimea. He was wrong. The West pushed for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the Donbas war, while not forgetting its principles over Crimea.

Every revolution starts with a catalyst… In his gamble on the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Putin has himself provided the catalyst

Putin then gambled again. In July 2021, he positioned 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. That time he was persuaded that the cost for any attempt to grab more Ukrainian lands would be significant and he chose not to invade. He gambled that, if he left the bulk of those forces in place and then continued to build them up to unleash the horrific war we now see, his demands (always totally unreasonable and unacceptable) would be capitulated to. He still appears to think this.

Despite Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stating that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is about “liberating” Ukraine from external control and neo-Nazism, Putin appears to accept that things could be left where they are if Ukraine comes back to Minsk and agrees to capitulate totally and allow Russia to dictate sovereign choices to it.

The reason why Putin’s last gamble has already failed is that he has no path to victory. The way in which this attempt to bully Ukraine into subjugation will collapse relies on two things:

Those two things are closely intertwined, and it is the latter that is Putin’s Achilles heel.

Across Russia, there are spontaneous anti-war protests in many cities. Putin doesn’t tolerate Russian people protesting on the streets, he is terrified of this very thing. To demonstrate that, his secret police arrested 2,700 people for participating in those rallies in 51 cities. Some of the demonstrators were standing as one-man pickets, something technically allowed under Russian law.

Now the first part of that equation, the resilience of Ukrainians, comes into the equation. This is what is going to happen as this war plays out. And how it will drive the protest movement inside Russia significantly in the time ahead.

Since Russia unleashed this unprovoked war, 5,300 invading Russian servicemen have been killed. That’s right, 5,300 dead Russian sons in under 48 hours. The Ukrainian military is a fierce enemy, and they are at home, defending their land. They have significant combat experience, thanks to Putin’s prior gambles, and they have significant supplies of high-tech weaponry at their disposal which they are putting to good use on the battlefield. 

As the reports of casualties reach the Russian public, so too will the resistance to the war inside Russia. The number of arrests will increase, but so too will the number of men returned to their wives in coffins. And not only will the Ukrainian military inflict significant losses on the invasion army, but the people will too.


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In the last few days alone, 18,000 people in Kyiv, all with some degree of military background also, received automatic weapons and ammunition. The fight for Kyiv is going to be bloody. And that fight will pit an adversary in a strange city against people who knows every inch and alleyway in their home town. That resistance, the Territorial Defence units, will fight until the last man standing. And the body bags will keep going back to Russia in increasing numbers. 

Every revolution starts with a catalyst. A single event that turns the tide of things. And then there is a momentum that keeps that movement going. In his gamble on the all-out invasion of Ukraine Putin has himself provided the catalyst.

As the bodies of Russian troops are sent home and as families there grieve for their sons lost to this senseless war, the momentum for continued protests, across Russia, will not cease. This is why not only does Putin not have a path to victory in Ukraine, but why we can see now his own Achilles heel. The strength of the people of Russia in objecting to this war, a senseless attack on a once-friendly neighbour, can change the course of history in Russia itself and lead to the downfall of the most corrupt regime the planet has ever known. 

The removal of Vladimir Putin will not only lead to a brighter future for the people of Russia, but it will be one of the most significant contributions to world peace in a generation. I don’t just hope that ordinary Russian citizens will keep up their protests, I can see exactly how and why it is going to happen, the death toll from this gamble too far and the fact that the Russian people will not be indifferent to the unavoidable deaths, the responsibility for those deaths ultimately lies with one man: Vladimir Putin.

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